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Freelancing Can Work – But It Takes Organisation

JMSC students and alumni provide tips and suggestions to inspire aspiring freelancers.

JMSC alum Ivan Broadhead, on board a UN helicopter, on an observer mission to ensure the ceasefire in Western Sahara

JMSC alum Ivan Broadhead, on board a UN helicopter, on an observer mission to ensure the ceasefire in Western Sahara

Whether or not to work as a freelancer used to be a choice made by the journalist.  With staff positions disappearing as the traditional media grapple with changes wrought by the digital age, some writers are finding that freelancing is now their only alternative.  A number of JMSC students and alumni have had success as freelancers, and they say there are tricks and rules that can help.

Susie Gyopos (MJ 2005), for example, now contributes regular columns to The South China Morning Post, and occasional one-off stories, from her home in England.

Leanne Wang (PDipJ 2008) and Han Wei, a current Master of Journalism student, report that there’s a healthy market for freelanced articles on the mainland.  Han has sold a number of business, political and cultural stories to local and mainland publications, including several book reviews.  Wang sold many business stories written from Hong Kong during and after receiving her degree last year, and her freelanced stories led to a full-time job earlier this year with one of China’s leading business news organizations.

The growing importance of freelancing in the modern media world was recognized by the JMSC two years ago, with the introduction of a graduate-level course dealing specifically with the subject (Special Topics in Journalism I: Freelancing), taught by long-time freelancer Vaudine England.

Han Wei reveals how a bit of forward thinking can lead to success as a freelancer.  He used to work at a publishing house in Beijing, he says, and he learned that it takes time for such houses to translate a newly published foreign book into Chinese.  “So I will read the English version in Hong Kong first and write the articles (the book reviews) beforehand,” he says.  When the Chinese edition comes out and he receives a request from a publisher for a review, he is ready to deliver instantly.

Gyopos says that is one thing editors most look for: “a writer who delivers the goods on time, without a fuss.”  She offers some additional common-sense advice to aspiring freelancers:

*Follow up every lead, keep an open mind, and don’t take the first, second or even third “no” as the final answer.  “But avoid being a complete pain!”
*Consider going beyond your usual area of specialization.
*Don’t take up your own time writing uncommissioned pieces.

*Know your publications, and research your topic and the style of the publication in question thoroughly before you propose a story.

Gyopos also emphasizes the importance of the business aspect of freelancing.  “Take the business end of things  seriously,” she says. “You are offering a product – your writing skills – as much as if you were hawking goods in a market stall or selling toys online. Look for clients who pay a fair fee and on time, and leave at least 20 to 30 percent of your hours for admin work – preparing invoices, marketing yourself, sorting out your tax, filing your expenses, chasing new work, etc.”

Both Gyopo and Saul Sugarman, another current graduate student at the JMSC, says networking pays dividends.  “Some publications are fairly impenetrable,” says Gyopos.  “So my best advice is to network – especially with your JMSC classmates, but also at social events, book launches, literary festivals, etc.”

Sugarman has landed work as a web intern at The Far Eastern Economic Review, which shares office space in Hong Kong with its sister Dow Jones publication, The Wall Street Journal Asia.  “Recently, I have been freelancing with The Wall Street Journal, which  mostly came about through inter-office networking,” Sugarman says. “I found certain editors that have budgets to commission articles, and I have been pitching to them.”


Current MJ student, Saul Sugarman

As Sugarman’s story implies, one route to success is simply being in the right place at the right time with the right skills.  But the writer still has to hustle.  “My first collaboration with The Wall Street Journal was when the Review interviewed Thailand’s current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva,” Sugarman says.  “An editor came back from the interview and I asked, ‘Do you have a recording?’ I turned the recording into a podcast, which then ran on with an editorial that the editor wrote for The Wall Street Journal editorial page.”

He says he already had considerable digital skills when he arrived at the JMSC, but he improved on those through the teaching of lecturer Diane Stormont during the “bootcamp” that incoming JMSC graduates are now required to attend, and during an internship at Time Out Hong Kong magazine arranged by JMSC Professor Doreen Weisenhaus.

He says there are other people at the Dow Jones publications who can do the kind of digital work he’s doing – he’s now had about a dozen video pieces posted on Dow Jones websites  but not everyone has the time.  “If someone knew how and also actually had time to do it, they’d be doing it,” Sugarman says.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt to be passionate about what you’re doing. I think they have allowed me to do as much as I have because they know I’m passionate about multimedia, and they also know I’m only interested in increasing the quality of their publication.”

Ivan Broadhead (MJ06), whose work has ranged from the recent presidential election in America to an interview with the Dalai Lama of Tibet to an exposé about a leaking U.S. nuclear waste site in the South Pacific, says there is no secret to making a success of– “unless you count hard work and originality.” And while it suits those who enjoy irregular work patterns, Broadhead says, “not everyone is suited to freelancing, and you need to think carefully before taking this path.

He points out what many adventuresome freelancers before him have learned: “Certainly, you’ll never get rich – you’re doing this work for the love of it; the love of news, communication and variety.”  Still, having been detained by security forces from North Africa to the Caucuses since he left the JMSC, he says, “the safety net of being on the staff of an international media organisation has more than once seemed an attractive proposition!”

As in many businesses, location is important.  “Being thousands of miles away from the New York and London news hubs, it’s immensely difficult to get a foot in the door,” the Hong Kong-based writer says. “And, of course, in Hong Kong, there’s not the variety of domestic English-language news outlets that there is in some countries, so you can occasionally feel limited in terms of whose doors to knock on.”

Broadhead says it can be disheartening to have a good story idea rejected “while Bigmedia often produce rubbish content at exorbitant expense. However, when a story works, I think the sense of pride and achievement more than compensates for the struggle to get news out into the big wide world.”

Leanne Wang says freelancing made all the difference for her.  “I don’t think I could have ever learned so much and grown so fast to become a mature and versatile financial reporter without this freelancing experience,” she says.  “I think journalism students who have solid working experience and knowledge about business should consider freelancing as a way to break into this competitive industry – especially while the industry is under heavy pressure due to the global economic crisis.”